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Why RE is in trouble and why you should care

Why RE is in trouble and why you should care

Religious Education is facing major challenges. The Commission on RE will make recommendations about how to improve the subject later this year. We’ve asked a range of RE professionals and researchers to set out what they think RE might look like five years in the future. In this introductory blog, Theos’ Simon Perfect sets out the main challenges facing RE today.

What is God like, depending on who you ask? Is human nature essentially good, bad, or neither? Why do some people kill in the name of religion? What does secularism mean?

It’s a no–brainer that giving children the space to discuss these sorts of issues is vital for helping them to understand the modern world, where religion and belief continue to shape politics and conflict globally. In the UK, unlike in France, all state–funded schools are required by law to provide this kind of learning to all pupils[i] in the form of Religious Education. RE, when done well, is rightly seen by policymakers as an important element in building community cohesion. More importantly, it is a subject of great academic importance in its own right and can play a key part in children’s social, moral and spiritual development. 

But unfortunately, RE is not being ‘done well’ in many schools. There is great diversity in the content and quality of RE across England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different RE situations). Indeed, there are competing views about what ‘good RE’ actually looks like among different RE professionals and religious and non–religious stakeholders. In some schools, RE is not provided at all. The subject is facing a number of major challenges, as outlined in a recent report by the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). They include:

·       Too little time dedicated to RE in many schools.

In many places, time for RE is squeezed to make room for other subjects; and 25% of secondary schools don’t offer RE to all students at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level).[ii] Some headteachers choose not to prioritise RE in part because the subject was not included in the English Baccalaureate (the EBacc – a school performance indicator measuring how many pupils in a school achieve 5+ good grades in traditional academic GCSE subjects). Shockingly, 28% of secondary schools offer no time at all for RE, failing completely to comply with the law. This means about 800,000 pupils are being deprived of RE provision.[iii] There need to be stronger structures to hold schools to account if they fail to comply with the law on RE.

·       Difficulties in recruiting sufficient numbers of suitably qualified teachers of RE.

In secondary schools, 56% of teachers taking RE classes don’t have any post–A Level qualifications relevant to the subject, compared to 28% for History classes.[iv] In primary schools, a large proportion of RE subject leaders have no qualifications in RE, or only a GCSE or O Level; and many primary teachers receive little or no training in RE during their initial teacher training.[v]

·       Inconsistency in the quality of RE syllabuses.

RE in England and Wales is not part of the National Curriculum but instead syllabuses for RE are determined locally. In each local authority, a syllabus for RE is set every five years by an Agreed Syllabus Conference, supported by a Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE) consisting of representatives of different faith groups. What is taught in RE classes in one school may be very different from what is taught in another. This local diversity in content has increased in recent years as the majority of secondary schools have become academies, which are not required to follow the locally agreed syllabus and can design their own syllabuses.

Such content diversity isn’t necessarily a problem, but there are also increasing concerns that the quality of syllabuses is extremely variable. Cuts to local authority budgets mean that many SACREs are under–resourced, resulting in poor–quality syllabuses. In local authorities where most or all schools are academies, Agreed Syllabus Conferences are still required by law to produce RE syllabuses even though the local schools are not expected to use them.

Taken together, these challenges are leading to a significant proportion of children leaving school with very poor understanding about religion and belief, at a time when they seriously need it. Action to improve RE is urgently needed. Several groups in the last few years have called for reform, including the Commission on Religious Education, set up by the RE Council of England and Wales with a remit to review the subject’s situation and to make recommendations to government. The Commission published its interim report in September 2017 and its final report will be launched later this year. Another report calling for reform is A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools (2015) by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, the updated second edition of which is to be published this July.

The recommendations from these initiatives differ in important areas. For example, A New Settlement argues that the local system of syllabuses needs replacing with a national syllabus for RE, required for all schools and determined by a council of RE professionals convened by the Secretary of State.[vi] The Commission on RE’s interim report, however, argues that rather than a national syllabus, there needs to be a ‘national entitlement’ statement for RE. This would set out in broad terms the aims of RE and what all pupils should experience, and would act as a minimum framework which schools could build on to develop their own syllabuses.[vii] Either a national syllabus or a national entitlement statement would help inspectors hold schools to account in their provision of RE.

But what might happen if action isn’t taken? We’ve asked a range of RE professionals, teachers and researchers to offer their visions of what RE might be like in five years’ time. Check out the first blog in our series on the future of RE, by Neil McKain, a member of the executive of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE).

These issues aren’t just relevant for policymakers and teachers. Everyone concerned for the good education of our children should be worried that RE provision is of such patchy quality. Good RE won’t overcome all the community divisions in our society, but it will go a long way to help.


[i] This includes provision for RE for all pupils registered at the school, including those in the sixth form, except for those withdrawn by their parents or for those aged 18 or over who have withdrawn themselves.

[ii] NATRE (2017) State of the Nation: A report on Religious Education provision within secondary schools in England, p. 18. 

[iii] NATRE (2017) State of the Nation, p. 16.

[iv] Department for Education (2016) ‘Tables: SFR 21/2016’, School Workforce in England: November 2015.

[v] Commission on Religious Education (2017) Religious Education for All, pp. 12–13. 

[vi] Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead (2015) A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools, pp. 48–50.

[vii] Commission on Religious Education (2017) Religious Education for All, p. 6

 Image by PanyaStudio from available under licence.

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

Watch, listen to or read more from Simon Perfect

Posted 26 June 2018

Education, Religious Education


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